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INTERVIEW: ‘Everybody in Sweden who buys cocaine should know the money is used to buy bullets’

The award-winning Swedish crime reporter and author Diamant Salihu features in this Saturday's Sweden in Focus podcast, where he talks about Sweden's shockingly high number of gang shootings, what's behind them, and what to do about it.

INTERVIEW: 'Everybody in Sweden who buys cocaine should know the money is used to buy bullets'
Diamant Salihu at the time he won Sweden's main journalism award. Photo: Duygu Getiren / TT

Salihu, currently crime reporter for public broadcaster SVT, was scathing about Sweden’s failure to act to deal the factors leading young men into criminality.

“We have very segregated areas, and we have a young generation that we’ve known for many years were at risk of becoming criminals,” he said. “We have failed to stop that from happening, and now they’re armed and dangerous and we’re like, ‘what the heck should we do?'”

Salihu’s first book, Tills alla dör, or “Until everyone is dead”, covers the conflict between the Shottaz and Dödspatrullen gangs, starting with the formation of the two gangs following a dispute between two childhood friends over the robbery of a currency exchange. 

He told the Sweden in Focus panel, however, that the true origin of rising gang violence in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, where the two gangs are based, went back at least a decade earlier to the time when Sweden’s authorities started closing local offices in the suburb.

“For decades, the people there have been seeing the official buildings closing. The county offices were closed in 2007, and there were hundreds of people who had been working there, and then in 2014 even the police office closed down,” he said. “So these people felt more and more closed off from the majority society.” 

In his book, he describes how the mainly Somali families of the members of the two gangs tried everything to the stop the conflict, sending some young men to relatives in Somalia, and even trying to pay off families of victims, in the Somali tradition of “blood money”, when one side pays the other a sum to prevent an endless cycle of retribution. 

“They turn to these old traditions that usually would work in Somalia. But these guys are not from Somalia. They are from Sweden, with Somali parents. So they created their own society, this extremely radicalised way of living that neither the parents, nor this society can really fully understand.” 

The situation, he said, was made even worse by the police’s inability to find, arrest, prosecute and jail the people who carried out the shootings. 

“This gave these guys even more motives to continue killing each other for revenge. The bad efficiency of the police and the prosecutors and [the inability] to solve the cases has led to even more murders, and made these young teenagers even more radicalised,” he said. 

Swedish gangster rap then fed off and then added further fuel to the dispute, with rappers posing with gang criminals in their videos, and describing their crimes in their music. 

“At the same time as the conflict was escalating, these teenage rappers were becoming more and more successful,” Salihu explained. “They grew up in this area and they were friends or relatives with some of these guys that were carrying guns, and so they also became a part of the problem.”

“They began to use these guys, the criminals, in their videos and in their lyrics, and this gave the rappers authenticity, and authenticity was what the audience was demanding because they wanted to see or listen to stories from this world that they were not part of.” 

Rappers’ involvement with gangsters came at a price, with several rappers later getting kidnapped by the gangsters and extorted out of some of money they had earned from music. Einar, a white rapper whose mother was a successful actress, was then murdered. 

“Many of the rappers were hanging around with criminals that were armed, which gave them some kind of protection from those kinds of kidnappings or humiliations. But the one that didn’t have the same protection was Einar. He was an easy target with too much money. And that’s why they could do what they did.” 

Nowadays, the centre of gang violence in Stockholm has moved to the southern suburbs, away from Rinkeby in the north, which is relatively calm. 

“Especially the last two weeks, we’ve seen a huge gang conflict between two gangs, and one of the gangs has links to people that allegedly are the targets of what we thought was the Einar conflict,” Salihu said. “We don’t know that really yet.” 

That last year struck a new record for gang shootings in Sweden is, paradoxically, a consequence of the police’s success in arresting and jailing senior criminals following the cracking of Encrochat, an encrypted chat service. 

“When the leaders went to prison, the young guys became leaderless, but they still had guns and they still wanted to earn money on drugs,” Salihu explained. 

When the texts of the chats were made public as part of the court cases, they also showed which gang members were betraying their colleagues, leading to a spate of revenge killings. 

“They found out a lot of information through the encrypted chats, because in Sweden everything becomes official when you prosecute somebody,” Salihu said. “So they can see that this guy and that guy had some kind of relation with one another. There’s been a lot of gossip which has led to shootings.” 

The violence has also spilled out of Sweden’s big three cities into smaller cities like Sundsvall, Kalmar, and Linköping. 

“The police have the more vulnerable areas under watch and there is a huge market in the rest of the country, where the guys know that they can take over and sell their products,” Salihu explains. “And they kill their competitors if they have to.” 

A lot of the shootings in southern Stockholm have been attributed to a battle for control of the drug market in Sundsvall, a city in the north of Sweden, that Salihu said was “like a port to the rest of the northern parts of Sweden, and also to our neighbouring countries”. 

“There is so much drugs smuggled into Sweden that there are leftovers for Norway and for Finland.”

Just in the last decade or so, the volume of drugs being imported into Sweden has increased enormously, he added, with police now regularly busting cargos of kilograms of cocaine. 

Salihu remembered that when he was writing his first book, he was hugely sceptical of one source who claimed to be able to sell 200g of cocaine in a weekend. 

“Then Encrochat came, and you could read that these guys are bringing in like 150 kilos of cocaine in some weeks. There’s so much drugs coming into Sweden.” 

Ten years ago, he said, police used to have a “kilo club” of officers who had made busts of over 1kg. 

“Now nobody speaks about that because it’s so common to get one kilo of drugs, which says something about what’s been happening in Sweden during the last decade.” 

Drug use is more and more normalised in Sweden, he believes, with the use of cocaine, cannabis and other drugs more socially acceptable across social classes. 

“It’s everybody,” he said. “Everybody that buys a gramme of cocaine or cannabis should know that their money is being used to buy the bullets and guns that are killing people in Stockholm.” 

Salihu said that his next book, När ingen lyssnar, or “When no one is listening”, is about the cracking of Encrochat and how it gave police in Sweden and elsewhere a window in real time into what some of the most powerful criminals were discussing. 

One of the things that this hugely successful police operation, which involved police in France, the UK, has shown was how many of the murders in Stockholm and elsewhere had been ordered by gang leaders from afar. 

“The encrypted telephones have made it possible for criminals that have enough money to just order killings from abroad, while lying in the pool or sitting in a bar, and telling young teenagers to do things in the Swedish suburbs. That’s is what’s happening,” he said. 

“So the guys are in Turkey at the moment, because Turkey doesn’t extradite anybody to Sweden. I mean, I did a story quite recently there, where one of the wanted guys described Turkey as a ‘gangster’s paradise’. And one of the main characters in this ongoing battle about the Sundsvall market is the so-called ‘Kurdish Fox’. And he is based in Turkey and has invested in citizenship.” 

So what can Sweden do about its problem with gang crimes? 

Salihu has mixed feelings about the new government’s hardline approach, describing plans for stop-and-search zones as “political bullshit”, which the police have never expressed a need for. He also expressed doubt about how much anonymous witnesses would be used in practice. 

But he does think that Sweden needs youth prisons.  

“There’s an agreement among researchers that we need to incapacitate young criminals, so that when they’re most active, they need to get off the streets, they need to be somewhere where they can get the proper treatment when they are young.”

Older criminals he has spoken to, he added, “think that it’s not the best thing to mix teenagers with adult criminals, because that might lead to even more recruitment.”

“Obviously,” he continued, “they need to be behind bars somewhere somewhere else, maybe for a longer time until they grow up and realise that they can’t kill each other like this.”

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Three injured in suspected knife attack in central Sweden

At least three people have been injured in a suspected knife attack which took place in broad daylight in the centre of Västerås in central Sweden on Friday afternoon.

Three injured in suspected knife attack in central Sweden

Police were called to the scene at shortly before 1.30pm on Friday after several women who Swedish police described as “elderly” were found injured with stab wounds. 

The man suspected of attacking the three women, who is reportedly in his late 20s, was later shot by police. According to Region Västmanland he is “seriously injured”.

“They have been injured with a sharp object but whether it is a knife or something else, we do not know right now,” Tobias Ahlén-Svalbro, a spokesperson from the local police told Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT. 

The three women have been taken to hospital, with one, in her 70s, described as having serious injuries. The others’ injuries are less severe.

“We are investigating two crime scenes,” Ahlén-Svalbro said. “As far as I understand the situation, two of them were injured in one area and the other somewhere else, but both areas are in central Västerås.”

The police have opened an investigation into aggravated assault, he added.

“We have already received several witness statements and would like to hear from any other witnesses who have seen or heard something.”